Wesley Saunders grew up playing basketball in Los Angeles, just a five-minute drive from the University of Southern California.
As a high school standout, he caught the attention of coaches at powerhouse Arizona during an elite camp for preps. He also drew interest from the hometown Trojans and Colorado.
But when it came time to decide where to play basketball, Saunders picked a school that hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament in six decades.
“I thought Harvard was the best of both worlds,” Saunders said Friday as his Crimson team prepared for a third-round matchup with Arizona on Saturday at EnergySolutions Arena. “It had the academics, and the athletics were on the uprise.
“And I saw the vision.”
That vision is Tommy Amaker’s. The former Duke point guard has helped a university — whose most famous basketball product up until last year might have been Barack Obama — overcome a hardwood history devoid of an Ivy League championship to make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. For historical perspective: Before Amaker took the reins, Harvard’s only trip to the NCAA Tournament came during the Truman administration (not a Harvard man, by the way).
In six seasons in Cambridge, Amaker has led the Crimson to 112 wins and 64 losses. In 2012, a year after graduating future NBA sensation Jeremy Lin, Harvard won the university’s first-ever Ivy League title.
In 2013, however, the former Seton Hall and Michigan coach has orchestrated what is arguably the best coaching job of his life. Harvard went 19-9 to win the Ivies. Then the 14th-seeded Crimson shocked No. 3 New Mexico on Thursday night in Salt Lake City for Harvard’s first-ever tournament victory.
And Amaker is doing it all without two players who likely would have been senior captains. Kyle Casey, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged better than 11 points and five rebounds a night as a junior, and guard Brandyn Curry both withdrew from the school before the season in the wake of a university cheating scandal.
Amaker credits his remaining players for being able to bounce back.
“First of all, I think you’re going to have setbacks and circumstances at any program at any college or university, certainly with the ages of the kids that we’re talking about,” Amaker said this week. “And it wasn’t certainly a basketball or an athletic deal there. It was a university-wide situation that occurred. Very unfortunate for everyone involved and for our whole institution. But certainly you have to figure things out, move forward, adjust and adapt, and that’s what we have been able to do. That’s what makes the ages of these kids amazing, because they can do that very easily.”
The players, meanwhile, point back at Amaker.
“The coaches have done an amazing job this year,” guard Christian Webster said. “Coach Amaker has done probably his best coaching job ever with us, and it’s been an amazing year that we had and getting through that adversity.”
Harvard’s rapid rise to basketball relevancy surprises Arizona coach Sean Miller, but only a little.
“And certainly I mean that in the most complimentary way I can,” he said Friday. “In another sense, no [I’m not surprised], because Tommy, whether he’s a player at Duke and what he did at Seton Hall and watching him at Michigan and now at Harvard, he’s an excellent coach, terrific recruiter.”
Amaker says his best pitch is Harvard itself, which he called “an incredible brand” and a “magical name.”
“We want to present Harvard,” he said. “We think it can be an opportunity of a lifetime, and that’s what we talk about.”
But Harvard is not without its challenges: The Ivy League has notoriously strict academic standards and offers no athletic scholarships. Yet Amaker still has been able to lure solid recruits from all parts of the country.
“They have a number of players on their team that could do very well in our conference,” Miller said.
While the The New York Times previously reported that Harvard has lowered its academic requirements for athletes under Amaker, the coach and the university have said that is not the case.
But Amaker almost certainly also has benefitted from recent changes in financial aid. In 2006, Harvard announced that families earning less than $60,000 a year no longer would have to pay for tuition. In fall 2012, that number increased to $65,000. The expanded program also reduced costs for families with annual incomes between $60,000 and $80,000, according to the university’s website.
Webster, the Crimson’s lone senior, said it was Amaker and his vision that attracted him to a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1946.
“Harvard [was] a world-class institution, and the basketball team wasn’t world class when I got here,” he said.
Amaker and the kids from Cambridge are doing their best to change that now.
No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 14 Harvard
O EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 4:10 p.m.
TV • TNT
Records • Arizona 26-7; Harvard 20-9
Last meeting • Arizona 59, Harvard 58 (December 1966)
About the Wildcats • They are ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll and 29th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ poll.
About the Crimson • Harvard makes its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance after more than six decades without one.